Music: Rhapsody in White

IT WAS A shock to read accusations of racial discrimination against the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Village Voice last spring. For one thing, the Voice is published in New York and doesn’t often concern itself with what’s going on in Philadelphia, and for another, seeing an all-white orchestra on the Academy stage year after year was one of those familiar sights that one doesn’t even see anymore, let alone question, like a roomful of furniture that you become oblivious to after awhile, even after it starts falling apart.

The man who wrote the article, James Lincoln Collier, did some hard questioning, though. In addition, he did some actual behind-the-scenes maneuvering to find a black candidate who he thought could break the color bar. It all came about as a result of an earlier piece he had done for the Voice about the color line in the music profession. After it appeared, a member of the board of the Philadelphia Orchestra got in touch with Collier and said he would like to try to get black musicians into the orchestra. The second article detailed their search, the selection of Earl Madison, a cellist for the Pittsburgh Symphony, to audition for an opening and his subsequent rejection.

Collier’s conclusion was that Madison was good enough to have won the audition (although he never heard him play), and that even if the musician who finally got the post was better, that wasn’t the point. The point was that if Philadelphia really wanted a black player, it could have arranged to audition him alone and hire him. He concluded: "But Philadelphia doesn’t want black musicians."

This is a serious accusation. Collier didn’t say it, but another way of putting his thesis is: It’s so important to present the proper integrated image that it justifies compromising your standards. Otherwise you leave yourself open to the charge of racism. This, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about such issues, is probably what is going to happen sooner or later in most of the major symphony orchestras. Compromise. Out of over 500 players in the big five orchestras (Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Boston), only three are black. Time is running out. Orchestra managements are getting scared.

The Voice isn’t the only one goosing the music establishment. There was a recent broadcast here on station WFLN during which the suggestion was made that the prejudices of members of the boards of directors were keeping black musicians out of the symphony orchestras. Max Aronoff, director of Philadelphia’s New School of Music, wrote a letter to The New York Times saying that this was nonsense and that "primarily the absence of Negroes in orchestras is due to the fact that there are simply not that many Negro musicians who have been trained to play in symphony orchestras."